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Orange County’s Board of Education will hold a much anticipated forum Tuesday on ethnic studies courses as local districts add them to their curriculum amid a national debate on how history should be taught in America.

The first forum will take place 6 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 27 and can be attended in person at the board’s offices in Costa Mesa or streamed live on YouTube

The forum is taking place as state lawmakers consider making ethnic studies a graduation requirement for high schoolers across California.

The ethnic studies debate has in part been sparked by the police killing of George Floyd last year and an increase of violence and hate crimes against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community this year. 

Some say ethnic studies will quell racism and hate. Others fear a more extensive look into race and culture will only sow division. 

Some Orange County parents worry about how the Board of Education forum will portray ethnic studies and fear it might amplify misinformation circulating about the courses. Other parents are concerned about what these classes will teach.

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Miguel Lopez, a parent in the Placentia-Yorba Linda School District, said the board is “stacking the deck” against ethnic studies when it comes to the panelists it has invited to the forum and most of the speakers don’t have backgrounds in ethnic studies.

“From what I’ve read of their backgrounds and what’s available online for the people who are going to be presenting, they don’t really have any of those backgrounds so I’m not sure why they’re even being invited to speak as experts,” he said.

Board President Mari Barke disagrees.

“I really think there’ll be diversity of thought, so I hope that the public feels the same way,” Barke said. “The vetting is that each board trustee gets to pick a member. That’s the way we do it. That’s the way it’s been done in the past.”

The OC Board of Education’s forum will include the following panelists, according to a media advisory sent to the Voice of OC:

Initially, Elina Kaplan, co-founder of the Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies, a California-based coalition, which according to a media advisory, works to keep political agendas out of ethnic studies classrooms, was selected as one of the panelists, but was replaced by Shufutinsky.

For months now the board trustees have been planning to host two forums as school districts in the county grapple with ethnic studies curriculums and what type of history is being taught in public schools — and what’s being left out. 

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The debate over ethnic studies and critical race theory has dominated public comments at some local district board meetings this year and even led Los Alamitos Unified School District trustees to hold one of their May board meetings virtually for safety reasons following recommendations from police. 

Academics say critical race theory examines how laws and structures in the U.S. have been historically leveraged against people of color. Local district officials say the theory is taught at the college level and not in high school ethnic studies courses.

These courses are designed to teach the history, the culture, the plight and the contributions of people of color in the United States. 

“It just seemed to be a hot topic for all of our constituents,” Barke said. “We always at the county have taken a leadership role where we want to inform our constituents, even if we don’t have the ability to influence curriculum.”

An ethnic studies classroom in the Garden Grove Unified School District. Credit: Courtesy of Jared Wallace

Some parents and community members have shown up to school district board meetings across the county rallying against ethnic studies courses being taught and what they call critical race theory seeping into curriculum for months now. 

They say the theory is political indoctrination and teaches students that all white people are racist while victimizing people of color. Some states have banned the theory.

Dr. Ken Williams, who sits on the county board of education, told the Voice of OC earlier this year that critical race theory and the ethnic studies curriculum pushes an anti-religious narrative.

“This curriculum is also anti-American and is based on Marxist ideology that leaves our children believing they are either oppressors or are oppressed,” he wrote in an email in May.

Williams however, also said that in a historical context, ethnic studies is a prudent exercise in education.

At the same time, students of color and their parents want to see themselves reflected in the curriculum and have been pushing for ethnic studies and to make the course a graduation requirement at multiple districts in the county.

Some like Lopez, the Placentia-Yorba Linda School District parent, say the ethnic studies debate in the county has been plagued with misinformation and for some there is no room for debate. 

He added his mother helped start the ethnic studies program at Fullerton College decades agos and that it faced similar criticism.

“It’s something that needs to be addressed because Orange County demographic changes are reflecting that need right now in schools where children need to hear about their own stories,” he said.

“There’s nothing unAmerican about that. There’s nothing Marxist about it. These children are Americans. These are our stories and the fact that they’re getting glossed over and have been glossed over historically or otherwise ignored, it does a disservice to everyone.”  

Miguel Lopez, a parent in the Placentia-Yorba Linda School District

The public will have another shot to speak on the issue at Tuesday’s forum.

But parents, students and educators on both sides of the debate will have only 30 minutes to sound off before the panel discussion with two minutes per speaker. Those who wish to comment have to show up in person.

Barke said public comments before the forum are limited to half an hour because they want to ensure they have enough time for the panelists to speak — some of whom are coming from across the country.

“After the forum … we will then allow for more speakers as we do. We just don’t want to disrupt the agenda because it could take all the time we have left for the forum,” she said.

Last summer, the board of education put out a controversial white paper with recommendations for how students should return to school based on a panel of experts it hosted which recommended that schools reopen without social distancing or requiring masks

Concerns were raised that the panelists and the public commenters at that meeting were cherry picked to speak against public health measures.

Barke said the board anticipates putting out another white paper following its second forum in August.

Ethnic Studies in Orange County

The forum is taking place less than a week after the Orange County Department of Education Superintendent Al Mijares last week held his own ethnic studies forum that included educational leaders and local superintendents from the county.

Mijares told the Voice of OC last week that his “colloquium” was intended to dispel misinformation. The public could submit questions but no time was allocated for public comment.

[Read: OC Board of Education, County Education Department Host Dueling Ethnic Studies Forums]

The event featured four educators and four Orange County superintendents who each gave mini presentations arguing for the importance of ethnic studies and why it should be implemented in schools, whether as an elective or a requirement.

Many of the speakers repeatedly mentioned a piece of research from 2017 that evaluated the impact of San Francisco Unified School District’s ninth grade ethnic studies program and found that most students enrolled in the ethnic studies course — especially at-risk students — showed improved academic performance and attendance in other courses.

Other arguments the speakers made for implementing an ethnic studies course included positive effects on mental health, teambuilding, a heightened sense of community and civic engagement.

The speakers also emphasized the importance of local consideration and demographics of the area when creating ethnic studies curriculum. 

Some questions from the public — which were all moderatored and chosen by Mijares — painted ethnic studies in a more negative light.

Lopez said he was happy with the panel but had concerns with some of the questions submitted which mischaracterized ethnic studies.

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It’s ultimately up to individual school districts in Orange County to decide whether to include ethnic studies in their curriculums.

Locally, multiple school districts, like Tustin Unified and Los Alamitos Unified, are already moving forward with elective ethnic studies courses.

“You’ve got to create a course that meets the needs of your community,” Andrew Pulver, the superintendent of Los Alamitos Unified School District, said at the colloquium last Tuesday.

“We are a community in Los Alamitos of a majority non-white district, contrary to what I think sometimes people think. We are about 40% white and 60% other minorities, and so we wanted to make sure the curriculum that we were creating for this course really reflected the needs for our students,” he said.

Others like Anaheim Union High and the Santa Ana Unified School District have voted to implement a graduation requirement. While students in the Fullerton Joint Union and Garden Grove Unified school districts are pushing for such a graduation requirement.

“For us, identity affirmation leads to a purposeful voice,” Anaheim Superintendent Michael Matsuda said at the colloquium. “Meaningful, authentic student voice, which then leads to civic engagement. What do you want to do with your education? What do you want to be? (Ethnic studies) leads to powerful careers that we need in Orange County.” 

The Orange County Board of Education is scheduled to hold a second forum on ethnic studies and critical race theory in August and will have a different set of panelists picked by board trustees.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC News Intern. Contact her at ahicks@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.

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